By Charles Vanegas
Growing up in Brazil, Ernandes Monteiro couldn’t afford to pay for capoeira training. But somehow he always managed to convince his master to train him anyway, earning him the nickname “Chaveco” – meaning “sweet-talker.”
Now 35, Chaveco instructs the Ryerson Capoeira Club. Often confused with breakdancing by the untrained eye, this martial art is very unique and deep-rooted in history.
In colonial times, Portuguese-occupied Brazil was the largest importer of African slaves – accounting for almost 40 per cent of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Unequipped and unarmed, some of these slaves developed capoeira as a tool for survival against the harsh conditions of the rainforest and to fight off slave-catchers, when they eventually attempted to escape.
And as capoeira greatly resembles a dance, they were able to hone their skills without alerting their masters.
“They made the capoeira so they could be free,” says Chaveco.
In the 19th Century, authorities made it illegal to practise capoeira, so to protect the identities of the group, capoeirists were given nicknames, or apelidos. It is still custom for masters to give apelidos to all their students.
Chaveco begins the lesson by having the class warm up while practicing ginja, the basic movement of capoeira. By constantly swinging back and forth in a triangle pattern, ginja makes the practitioner difficult to strike while allowing them the necessary torque to perform an attack at all times.
Santiago “Macaco” Galvis, a fourth-year aerospace engineering student, says that while all students begin by simply practising ginja, they quickly learn more advanced, acrobatic moves.
“When I first started [I could do] nothing,” he says. “[But] two months after I started, I did this move called the macaco.”
This back handspring, known as “the jump of the monkey” – macaco literally means “monkey” in Portuguese – is what earned Macaco his nickname. Chaveco says that while Macaco was a quick learner, anyone can learn to do more difficult capoeira moves if they put in the time.
“You can’t run if you don’t walk. You have to build a base,” says Chaveco. “If you want to learn, and learn it right, in three months you will be able to do a flip, even if you’ve never done one in your life.”
The highlight of the class is the roda, where the group “plays” capoeira – simulating combat by showcasing their attacks without actually striking their opponent.
The group surrounds two sparring capoeirists while loudly singing traditional Brazilian songs led by the beat of a drum, the atabaque, and a stringed bow instrument called a berimbau, with members periodically tagging in to spar.
Chaveco doesn’t hesitate to use the roda for a teaching moment.
While sparring with “Salsa,” one of the group’s more senior members, he falls down and holds his face.
“That was fake,” says Chaveco. “I was like ‘oh my God, I’m bleeding.’ And he comes to me like ‘oh Chaveco, I’m sorry.’ But that’s when I’m going to put him down.”
The roda is imperative to Chaveco, as he says the music is as much a part of capoeira as the movement itself. He also says that this is where he is most able to see the results of his training.
“It’s important to me – I can say ‘I gave it to them, all this. They can now speak Portuguese, they’re singing Portuguese music right now.'”
The Capoeira Club meets in RAC Studio II every Tuesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
Photos by Charles Vanegas[nggallery id=99]